Readers often hear different poems when reading the same text. It’s unavoidable, even though it causes some authors to despair at how they are misread. So, it should be no surprise that it is possible in performance to recast poetry considerably without changing a word.
Around 1902 Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote a poem taking exception to a too-easy consolation meant to comfort. He cared for the poem enough that around 20 years later he revised it slightly, to emphasize his response to this well-meaning gesture, explicitly writing out the one word concise enough to underline his feelings at the offer of comfort: “No.”
Those who study Yeats’ life are pretty sure this poem is biographical and is based on his unrequited courtship of Maude Gonne. That’s a long story, and to say that these were two complicated individuals is to understate the matter. If one reads today’s text, that poem “The Folly of Being Comforted,” in that biographical way, it makes sense. Here’s a link to that text. That reading, coldly condensed, would have it that someone told Yeats, “Hey, that hottie that you are so enamored with — I’ve heard she’s getting older, grey hair, older skin around her eyes. Sure, they say with age comes wisdom, but never mind any of that, she’s no longer so attractive that others will be chasing her. So now, maybe your chance will come around.” And to this Yeats gives his “No,” explaining that as he sees it, she’s not lost a step beauty and attractiveness-wise.
There’s a perfectly good romantic love sonnet there, and that’s not what I performed today.
I’m mentioned this year that I have family and others I know going through infirmities and transitions. It’s not my nature to talk about them, or even to directly write of my own experience of those situations. Even though one of the principles of this project has been to seek out and to present “Other People’s Stories,” I’m hesitant to speak over their own voices* in the same way that I’m comfortable talking about those long dead and in some cases too little remembered.
As I was working today on finishing the mix of the audio performance you can hear below, Dave called me to tell me that our friend and poet Kevin FitzPatrick had died last night. We were planning to visit him in hospice tomorrow. Now we’ll visit him when we think of him. Visiting hours are now unlimited.
For many years Kevin and Ethna would celebrate poetry in a public reading on St. Patrick’s Day in Minnesota.
Another poet we both know, Ethna McKiernan, is also facing a serious illness this year. When I read and then performed Yeats’ poem, I was thinking of these things. I recognized it was a romantic love poem, yes, but I read all sorts of undertones in it. We are meant to pass over them in the “correct” reading. Maude Gonne was all of 35 when Yeats first published his poem, the grey hair and “shadows…about her eyes” were likely subtle things. We’re all more than double that. Age is not subtle at that volume. When I read Yeats’ simple elaborating line “I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.” I felt my own lack of useful care or comfort I’ve offered Kevin or Ethna, partly because I fear I’d be rather bad at it, and partly because I’m less close to either of them than even Dave is. That said I’ve been acquainted with Ethna for about 40 years. I may have not been close to her in her “wild summer,” but I knew her when. Yes, the fire “burns more clearly” with her even now as Yeats says. After all, when you get our age, there’s more fuel.
Yeats called his poem, “The Folly of Being Comforted” and he ended the poem with that title. He likely had real feelings in this matter, long ago when he was alive. When I think of these mortal matters, now, here, my feelings are different than a witty sonnet about someone’s crude mistake regarding his estimate of Maude Gonne. And so I performed my feelings, using Yeats words.
The player to hear that performance is below for many of you, but some ways of reading this won’t display that. So, I also offer this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window and play it.
*I feel I must guard myself in that partly because I’d easily fall into it if I didn’t.
This has not been a month conducive to producing new content for this project, and I’m not sure about July and August either. At some point I’ll probably talk about some of the reasons for that, but I thought it’d be good to leave you with one more June piece, and it’s a fine summer song by a voice this project hasn’t heard from enough lately: Dave Moore.
Dave and I first performed as The LYL Band about 40 years ago, and we’ve kept at it over the years. Our typical encounters this century have been a sort of two-person song circle with each of us alternating in presenting a song, a piece most often completely new and unknown to the other. These first takes* get recorded, and one of them is today’s audio piece.
First takes with unknown material is not the way most bands work, and certainly not how they record. Bob Dylan worked with unknown, fresh material and new-to-it musicians in his classic years (and may still now, there’s just less documentation), often providing at best chord charts for assembled musicians or brief run-throughs. But Dylan would do multiple takes even trying different studios or musicians over time, trying get the right take.
It’s not uncommon for jazz musicians to do the same thing we do in their recording studio dates, though some feel that even with Jazz’s reverence for spontaneity that this is a practice brought forward for logistical and lowered recording-budget overhead reasons, not as a considered artistic choice. Miles Davis seemed to find this practice a considered choice though, and when one listens to a record such as Kind of Blue we are likely to give some credit to that choice, which Bill Evans likened to spontaneous Japanese painting in the original LP liner notes. Later on, Davis took to the pentimento-practice of having everyone improvising on themes and then letting later audio editing assemble from the mass of recorded playing a post-recording compositional structure. A record like Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson assembled that way has a different vibe and timbre from Kind of Blue, but it works for me in its different way.
Are Dave and I musicians like Davis and his band members? No. Nor are we musicians likely to be called to a Bob Dylan session (note to Bob: call us anyway). Most of what we record on any one day isn’t worth more than a self-critical listen on our own parts. And of the rest? There are usually rough spots that even a bit of focused audio editing can’t excise. And then, sometimes something like “Hortensia” arrives.
If you accept (as I say often here) that all artists fail, then it can sometimes behoove one to make peace with failure. Do that, and then allow, then make possible, for the limited successes to arrive.
I often tend to overstate my guitar parts. I didn’t here. Dave’s keyboard skills at the time of the recording get some space, and while he’s not going to kick Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock to the curb, what he plays works. Dave’s vocals are usually more consistent than mine by a long shot, and his performance serves the song. I think Dave may have even improvised some of these lyrics during the performance — and this is the only performance of this song ever. And that serves the song too.
You see, I hear this as a summer song, a song of long days, rich days, that are still days, and must end in earth’s and fortune’s rota. “Now, sweet now” Dave sings. Yes.
I think I asked Dave what the song was about shortly after we recorded it. “The summer flower or the Roman woman?” I think he replied that it was more at something intuitive.
You can hear it with the player gadget below. Don’t see a player? This highlighted hyperlink will also play it.“Hortensia” is longer than most of our pieces here, but sit back with a cool drink and listen. Thank you hearty listeners and readers for sticking with this project!
*First, and in most cases, the only take. Since we haven’t focused on live performance much in our old age, we aren’t working up material for performance or developing a repertoire for that. Dave has been as prolific with words and with songs with his own music as I have been with musical pieces over the past few years. This means that there was always new material to be tried out, to be brought into existence, even if briefly and for one take.
Last time I left you with some impressions I got reading a George Orwell essay, but I also came upon a documentary this week on things this project deals with — things that you, welcome reader or artist, may also want to consider in your art or life. That film was The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith.*
I had some minor grasp of the loft scene in the ‘70s to early ‘80s, and I figured it might be worth a watch. I got more than I expected, though not quite what I expected. This story is centered in the late 1950’s, a time of tremendous artistic momentum that underpinned much that occurred in the more famous ‘60s later. Oddly the man, Gene Smith, featured in the title isn’t a jazz figure at all, but a photographer who lived in part of a run-down and irregularly converted commercial loft in New York City. Smith gets his name in the title, not only because he’s interesting and because his artistic biography is well-covered in the documentary, but because he had a curious desire at this point in his life to document large portions of his everyday reality via still photos, movies, writing, and copious audio recordings.
This trailer for the film leads with the Jazz, underselling the compelling story about photography it contains.
Lofts are often prized by artists, who like a gas are likely to expand to fill any space — and Smith certainly did that. Whenever I pause to consider my own studio space where many of the recordings for this project were done, I am embarrassed by how messy and cluttered it is. Smith matches me in that clutter from what we see, and the documentary would support a viewer who sees obsessive-compulsive elements in Smith. But unlike myself, or the garden-variety hoarder, Smith was a very accomplished black & white photographer in a number of styles. And then, somewhat like me, the clutter didn’t seem to stop Smith’s productivity — or if it did hamper it, his drive to continue to produce art was strong enough to make that issue moot.
I’m unsure how famous Smith is in art photography circles, but the film departs from its Jazz Loft focus to let us know that he was a very effective war photographer during WWII, one who was seriously wounded in the Pacific theater of that war. He worked for the large format magazines and photo services of the day as a photographer, with enough pull and force of personality to be allowed to create multipage photo essays he selected and laid out for publication himself. By the time of the Jazz Loft he seems to have been doing a lot of street photography, often shooting out of his window at the day to day people who had no sense they were being photographed.**
Even if, like me, you are not au fait with photography and photographers, it’s likely you know at least one or two of Smith’s photos. He’s the guy who shot the famous Harry Truman holding up the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. And when I saw a print of another photo just pinned up somewhere off to the side in the clutter of his workspace early in the film, I wondered if he’s responsible for another image that I knew: the emotionally resonant “A Walk to the Paradise Garden” photo. If you watch the film you’ll get more context for that photo.
So, is there Jazz in this film called The Jazz Loft? Yes. The late ‘50s were a time when a great many magnificent Jazz records were made, and when high-quality live Jazz performance was still commercially viable. The NYC area was a center of both of those things. The Jazz Loft was apparently like some places I know from my youth just slightly later, it was an open scene, and folks just wandered in and out of some of the loft, including a number of musicians who used it as a place to workshop or jam for their own enjoyment. From Smith’s documentation, it was a somewhat integrated scene at the loft, but predominantly white.*** This may be secondary to the man who apparently owned the loft (he’s said to have been Smith’s landlord during the film) Hall Overton. Overton was a figure unknown to me who was active in what in that era was known as “Third Stream.” Third Stream was an effort to combine composed concert music, often with orchestral instruments, with Jazz. Many, but not all, of the proponents of Third Stream were white musicians crossing over from modern “classical music.” I don’t want to over-simplify this, but while some Afro-Americans coming from a jazz background were interested in such a fusion and contributed significantly, Black Jazz musicians were also involved heavily at that moment in trying to keep Jazz culturally and commercially relevant to their Afro-American peers (“Hard Bop” and “Soul Jazz”) and with the more spiritual and political Black Arts movement.
The film eventually gets to concentrate on Overton for a while, and he’s as interesting as Smith, particularly for someone like myself who’s interested in Jazz and composition. If he sounds like something you’d like to nerd over for a while, I can recommend this lengthy and detailed article by Jazz pianist and composer Ethan Iverson on Overton, but if you’re trying to finish a translation and eventual musical piece using words by Rimbaud, I’d suggest you don’t click on that link.
Other folks who drifted through the Jazz Loft have stories that are told in shorter segments, and I personally like the way the editing and flow of the film allowed the stories to emerge organically, like a good Jazz set. The use of the archival materials (largely from Smith’s posthumous archive) is done very well.
Jazz, “Third Stream,” late ’50 NYC bohemia, and black & white photography are all niche interests. You may need to be interested in at least two of those things to have the highly rewarding experience I had with this documentary. If not, you need to be open to adventure in these areas. No car chases, no who’s sleeping with who dish, no unfolding speculative universe, other than the one that the arts often live in inside everyone else’s: whale’s bellies and lofts.
What did watching The Jazz Loft bring me? An appreciation of Overton’s efforts, which were largely unsuccessful even within the limited expectations of his niche. In Smith’s story, I found a mirror of my own somewhat obsessive drive to make the elements of this project, and a warning of the possible side-effects of that.**** Recall as I concluded Part 1 of this, that one of my artistic maxims is: All Artists Fail. George Orwell was despairing in 1940 at the batting average of artists seeking to change things in his society, while I’m somewhat heartened that they keep trying. Same box score, just different outlooks. So, Smith succeeded, for a while, and then descended into a state that was productive but not healthy. Overton for all his not-even-a-footnote status in musical history, made an honorable effort. They chose their own adventure, followed its path, saw and felt and knew what they saw.
*This assumes you are giving evidence by reading and listening here that you care about some less-mainstream things, and worse yet, a variety of them. “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith” is available most places you can rent or buy movies on computers, smart TVs, or tablets. There’s also a podcast-series which I have yet to sample.
**It’s apparent that many folks either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were being recorded by Smith either. The general reaction of those interviewed was that Smith was fairly overt about his documenting everything he could figure out how to capture, but other stories have him placing microphones all over the place. In terms of his photography within the loft, he had the advantage of “always being there” so that the people drifting in and out didn’t strike a pose for the camera.
***No, I’m not getting all woke on the people portrayed in this film. Just stating what I noticed that ran counter to my initial expectations of what I’d see in the Jazz milieu, even in the late ‘50s when de jure Jim Crow was still a thing. Indeed, the folks in the center of this film were probably significantly more cross-racial than their general society, and for that matter probably more than I am in this other century. Afro-American Jazz giant Thelonious Monk does have a sizable part in a story of one project workshopped at the Jazz Loft depicted in the film.
****I hope not that more dangerous take-away trope: well, I’m not that obsessed, or chemically dependent, etc. as that person.
This Friday is International Jazz Day, and for a project that subtitles itself “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s a little odd that I talk less about the musical half of what we do. My project assumes that poetry, even on the page, can be defined as words that want to sing. What manner of tune fulfills that desire? It varies.
Early in this project it became apparent that I was going to feature a lot of early 20th century verse as it was the newest poetry that was clearly available for reuse. This was the time when literary Modernism came to English language poetry, greatly expanding the tactics that could be applied to poetry, and it came in too with an idea that much of what had become expected of poetry was tired and worn out, inauthentic and false.
Almost simultaneously, a very similar movement was happening in music. Though largely segregated from European Modernist composers in person, Afro-Americans were developing at the turn of the century a twisted helix of musics that came to be called Blues and Jazz. Differentiating between those two things is a complex matter. Blues is a nearly inescapable element of Jazz, and Blues is more substantially a vocal music, and so Blues needed a poetry from the start. That means that Blues song lyrics are the Modernist revolution as originally expressed by American Black people, though because of their context and place in American culture this was not understood as such. Like Modernist poetry, Jazz and Blues too demonstrated freedom to use new tactics, and they too wanted to replace tired and false musical tropes.
Poets, even those who intend for their work to be published and read on the page, can’t help but be informed by the music they know and admire. Earlier this month I’ve speculated on Emily Dickinson’s use of 19th century hymn-song meter and a possible connection for her deviation from strict poetic forms informed by her own improvisations on piano. By 1920 we had a Modernist Jazz music coming to America’s attention, and literary Modernist verse, though not without its naysayers, had reached an American audience too. It’s like flame and gasoline, isn’t it? When are they going to meet?
I can’t say what the first Jazz Poem was, or who wrote it. If it was composed by an Afro-American it may have been unnoticed, unpublished, and unrecorded (save by the oral tradition and the folk process which didn’t keep their names). Some of the traditional folk-blues lyrics seem to date from the turn of the century, but they were not printed as poetry then — and even as vocal recordings, the oft-cited first blues record, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” dates from 1920.* The recording history of Jazz predates that a bit, with the all-white but still claiming “Original” Dixieland Jass Band’s broadly comic “Livery Stable Blues” coming out in 1917, and that’s sometimes cited as the earliest Jazz record. Two poems already featured here: Ray Dandridge’s “Zalka Peetruza” and Fenton Johnson’s“The Banjo Player”were available in 1922 for James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry.** The former’s “tom tom” beat and the later’s Modernist free verse could make them Jazz Poetry. Some articles cite Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” of 1925 as the first Jazz Poem, and it is unquestionably a Jazz Poem, but even Langston Hughes had some issues to overcome with it. Back in our February focus on Locke’s The New Negro anthology of 1925, recall that the elders mentoring and gatekeeping The Harlem Renaissance weren’t yet welcoming Jazz into high culture and were unsure of its effect on their project to elevate America’s appreciation of their race.
No, not that Prince’s band. A 1915 example of proto-Jazz and Blues being integrated into society dance music.
Which brings us to the underrated Modernist figure of Carl Sandburg,*** the white Midwesterner who had won the Pulitzer prize for his free-verse poetry in 1919 while being based in Chicago. In 1920 he publishes a follow-up collection, Smoke and Steel containing today’s poem called “Jazz Fantasia.” This too is clearly Jazz Poetry. It appears to be portraying an instrumental performance, and while unlike Hughes’ poem it quotes no Blues lyrics, it’s clearly a Jazz performance with its imitation of horn sounds, the husha, husha, hush of brush work on the high hat, and their sandpaper swish on the snare, the tin can of cowbell, and the knocking pan-metal ring of stick hitting rim.
If not Blues form as such, two details from Sandburg’s 1920 words (here’s a link to the full text of the poem) stand out to me. Half-way in, there’s a car, a cop, and… “bang-bang!” Striking to hear a still modern pain in a 100-year-old poem isn’t it! And the poem’s conclusion makes a case for the breadth of Jazz expression infrequently made in the fad for Jazz during the Jazz Age: that it wasn’t only frantic music with comic musical effects suitable for careless youth further forgetting their cares, but that it could also portray some green night lanterns and the boats ceaselessly beating against the current.
It was imperative to me that today’s musical performance for International Jazz Day must use some approximation of Jazz. I play no brass instruments and I find them hard to approximate with virtual instruments articulated by keyboards, so you’ll hear an anachronistic, more modern, Jazz trio: drums as featured in Sandburg’s poem, guitar, and bass. The player gadget for this may appear below — and if it doesn’t, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance of Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia.”
*In 1903, Afro-American composer W. C. Handy encountered a Blues playing guitarist in Tutwiler Mississippi, noted he was singing a Blues song with recognizable Blues lyrics. He thought the music was “The weirdest thing he’d ever heard” but by smoothing it off and adopting it to the composed brass band and society dance music he was familiar with, he made use of those Blues elements.
**Other examples of Jazz Poetry influenced writers I’ve managed to sneak in here are Kenneth Patchen who read to Jazz music, Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka, a poet who also wrote widely about Jazz, and even words by Laurie Anderson who was influenced by fellow Chicagoan Ken Nordine who had released several LP records he called “Word Jazz.” The music on Laurie Anderson’s recordings doesn’t read as Jazz to most, but focus instead on her voice and you’ll hear that same ‘50s cool jazz phrasing.
***I often make the case here that Sandburg’s poetry contains some admirable examples of the compressed and spare Imagist aesthetic, but besides poetry he’s intimate with the rise of photography as an art via his wife’s brother Edward Steichen, he was reportedly the first daily newspaper cinema critic in Chicago, and he was an important popularizer of American folk music.
And speaking of Langston Hughes achievement, Hughes’ early poetry often sounds unmistakably to me like he had “heard” Sandburg and taken some of his riffs into his own heart to be further extended by Hughes’ personal familiarity with the Afro-American experience.
Continuing in my celebration of Black History Month, I’m going to return to the 1925 anthology that is often thought of as the launching point of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro. This book’s editor Alain Locke wanted to demonstrate the breadth of new expression by Afro-Americans in his time, and so concentrated on young and living artists for the most part. In traveling back to 1925 to visit this book, I have to readjust myself to the way Locke and his alternate presenters frames these young artists compared to how someone might do so today.
Each essay I’ve read so far in The New Negro is written in a careful and august style. Don’t get me wrong, the style is not overly academic, and the introductory essays don’t descend into esoteric terminology. It appears that Locke wanted this book to speak to any educated person, white or Black — and probably to non-American’s too. But there’s a focus on the fine arts and how Afro-American work may be measured favorably in those fields — and then some discomfort with the popular arts where Afro-Americans are also increasingly visible to white folks.
There are some complex reasons for that, more than today’s post will have time to go into in any depth. The simplest heading for a large concern there is “minstrelsy,” the long-standing and once highly popular American tactic of using Black characters to represent unvarnished and unrepentant foolish and clownish behavior,* extended often through the use of white actors or artists portraying Black characters. In the popular arts, some of the breakthrough “cross-over” artists of Locke’s time were working off the grounds of this comic and derogatory white approximation of Blackness, giving them back a Black reflection of a racist white reflection of Blackness. Tough way to work!
Midway through I’ve come to the book’s section on music, and in this case Locke himself leads off that section with an essay somewhat different from the main thrust of the book, a lengthy appreciation of “The Negro Spirituals,” a folk music form with almost entirely anonymous composers that came to cultural attention in the 19th century, not in his modern 20th. Locke deftly deals with the dialect of those lyrics, and even at times concedes a judgement of simplicity on the music, countering by pointing out the — well — spiritual concerns, and the evident depth of feeling. He points out that European composers had long been drawing on that continent’s folk music and orchestrating it for concert halls** and suggests the same may be a path for Spirituals going forward.
The next essay in the Music section of The New Negro does speak to a 20th century Afro-American form, one not yet considered a fine art: “Jazz At Home” by J. A. Rogers.*** Rogers has a lot to say in his essay, and for someone like me who many decades later became interested in Blues, Jazz and their descendant forms, it’s interesting to see how one intelligent Afro-American in the middle of the emergent “Jazz Decade” of the 1920s viewed this music. Here’s a few excerpts that will give you the flavor:
The Negroes who invented [Jazz] called their songs the ‘Blues,’ and they weren’t capable of satire or deception….[Jazz] is a release of all the suppressed emotions at once, a blowing off of the lid, as it were. It is hilarity expressing itself through pandemonium; musical fireworks…..in idiom — rhythmic, musical and pantomimic — thoroughly American Negro; it is his spiritual picture on that lighter comedy side, just as the spirituals are the picture on the tragedy side. The two are poles apart, but the former is by no means to be despised and it is just as characteristically the product of the peculiar and unique experience of the Negro in this country.
Jazz, it is needless to say, will remain a recreation for the industrious and a dissipater of energy for the frivolous, a tonic for the strong and a poison for the weak. For the Negro himself, jazz is both more and less dangerous than for the white — less, in that he is nervously more in tune with it; more, in that at his average level of economic development his amusement life is more open to the forces of social vice….Yet in spite of its present vices and vulgarizations, its sex informalities, its morally anarchic spirit, jazz has a popular mission to perform. Joy, after all, has a physical basis. Those who laugh and dance and sing are better off even in their vices than those who do not…. It has come to stay, and they are wise, who instead of protesting against it, try to lift and divert it into nobler channels.”
The “Um, actually…” annoying and opinionated pedant in me wants to correct him at times,**** which when you think about it, is presumptuous. I’ve got decades of scholarship and hindsight that I didn’t have to do myself to prop me up. Rogers couldn’t listen to Charlie Patton records anytime he wanted to in 1925, so if he thinks Blues was sorrowful and was “incapable of satire or deception” I can’t bring him my evidence back to his time. And if he views Jazz in 1925 as merely happy-go-lucky, is he a reliable first-hand witness to his time and place that I’m not — or is he reflecting the types of Jazz that found the quickest acceptance by broader audiences including whites? Rogers lived long enough that it’s possible he could have listened to “A Love Supreme” before he died, and if so he would have found there the spiritual jazz expression he predicted.
So here I am, some other kind of fool, writing this introduction to — what? — some introductory essays, because directly following Rogers essay in our 1925 book is today’s piece, a poem by another writer who was totally unknown to me: Gwendolyn B. Bennett. She gives us an example of how poetry differs from the typical essay, and it’s not hard to think that Locke consciously chose that position, because her poem extends his and Rogers’ essays, giving us a set of words that are aware of the ideas they wrote about, but Bennett is telling sharply how those ideas feel.
Bennett’s poem, which she called just “Song” is too good to be overlooked, and so despite my current limitations with creating musical pieces I felt I had to present it. One choice I had to make in inhabiting it was just what was Bennett’s overriding stance on the dialectic between Black musical expression — even sincerely joyful Black expression — within an ignorant majority white culture. As in Rogers’ essay, Bennett’s poem seems to be balancing, recognizing the salve of joyful music, and the grace of Black joy and art against Black sorrow. I cannot ask Bennett, but I decided this piece’s performance needed to bring forward the white culture not quite grasping the Black performers’ balancing act, keying off things like the compressed eloquence of lines like “Breaking heart/To the time of laughter/Clinking chains and minstrelsy/Are welded fast with melody.”
In so doing maybe I bring a little white history to Black History Month. After all, it is presumptuous for a white guy to perform a Black woman’s poem, but I can bring my experience of ignorance.
*My cultural curiosity causes me to note that the trope of finding some outsider group to assign the most unalloyed foolishness to for what will be read by the insider group as humor is widespread. See the Rude Mechanicals in Shakespeare, dumb Polish/Irish/Scandinavian/Italian, etc. immigrant jokes, and hillbilly plays. Of course in America, the ways these ready-mades were employed using Black faces on top of the outrages of slavery was extraordinarily cruel.
**Locke also points out the historical link between Spirituals and educated culture in that many of the pioneering Black colleges had raised funds by touring Afro-American choirs presenting arrangements of these songs.
***Oh man, there is nowhere near enough time to discuss Rogers! He doesn’t seem to have been a music writer, but is instead a self-educated and often self-published crusading polymath with an unquenchable interest in every unlit corner of Black history. His books helped inspire a young Henry Louis Gates Jr.
****This is one of my worst personal characteristics. Hopefully I keep it away from you dear reader. Rogers is so concerned with uplifting the race, that he seems to have internalized (from white critics?) a fear that Jazz and Jazz lovers are backwards and that their effects were achieved naively. And many of the most popular jazz records of the 20s were fast numbers that stressed novelty effects, like this one by “The Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” White guys. Um, actually…
Continuing on from my post late last night, and the feelings of insufficiency we as artists may feel in the face of horrible things: cruelty, injustice, the taking of lives, the crippling of souls. As one of America’s sublimated poets put it, I think it all together fitting and proper that when we do this, that we feel this insufficiency. If something has risen to the level of being unspeakable, how can we speak it?
I’m still silent with answers tonight—and as with many things, my answers as an old man are less important than those you may find. So, let me instead give you a story and a testimonial.
The story may seem long ago to you, but it doesn’t to me. It happened in 1963, in my lifetime—not 1863 and the time of Lincoln, slavery, and Civil War.
It begins not with art but a group of domestic terrorists who were bombing and burning things in Birmingham Alabama. Terrorist is an ugly word, as it should be, but it’s likely that most terrorists think of themselves as partisans, as fighters against oppression, the necessary ones who will take the steps others shrink from.
Of course, I see these men as simple killers. I can suspect them of getting off on the clandestine evil of setting bombs and fires, of shooting into the night. And the “oppression” they are righteously bombing to oppose? They are more at the license to continue an oppression of others. On a Sunday morning, September 15th in 1963 they set off a bunch of dynamite at a church in their town. Just another bombing in a series.
This time they kill four little girls getting ready for sunday school.
Earlier that year, another of America’s displaced poets, Martin Luther King, had written his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in that town, that great document of the necessity of ending racial oppression, and now that year he would eulogize the four little girls. Eloquence was in town, continuing political pressure was in place, and the evil light of the terrorist bombing illuminated the words of those the bombers opposed. How sad and horrible it is to recount that.
That same year a jazz musician, John Coltrane was very busy earning a living with his art. When I say busy, I mean busy in a sense that boggles the mind. In that year alone he released four studio LPs while gigging constantly with his Quartet. Two weeks after he would have heard the news of the four little girls, he was due to play a New York City engagement at the Birdland club, which produced the live recording that gives its name to today’s post. Right after Coltrane finished the Birdland engagement, the group was off to Europe for a tour there. Four little girls dead, dynamited by their fellow human beings in furtherance of an evil idea. John Coltrane kept working.
Weeks then in Europe, and upon returning to the States the gigs and recordings continue. Somewhere between the day after the bombing in September and a one-day recording session on November 18th Coltrane came up with a musical piece that he called “Alabama.”
Then at the beginning of December when Coltrane’s tour was stopping in San Francisco he recorded a TV show. The format of the show was for the artist to play 3 or 4 songs and engage in a few minutes of interview with the host, but Coltrane begged off the interview. The host, Ralph J. Gleason, Mr. Rogers’ cardigan and all, subbed in a little explainer about the how jazz was like writing poetry in the middle of a supermarket. Cringe if you like at the metaphor and the white guy non-musician explaining it all to us,* but that’s what Coltrane and the Quartet then do. “Alabama” is strictly-speaking wordless. The John Coltrane Quartet spoke with their instruments.
The TV show where “Alabama” premiered. At 7:40 Gleason gives his “poet in a supermarket” metaphor, and at 9:35 the Quartet starts “Alabama.”
The four little girls, so cruelly and unjustly dead that same fall. In the interim, a U. S. President has been killed too. Hot studio lights for the cameras, a cost-saving bare sound stage to film in. Those five minutes of “Alabama” have been introduced to an audience for the first time.**
To my taste, Coltrane’s playing on the TV show performance of “Alabama” is even richer than the recording made a couple of weeks earlier though the rest of this Quartet of great musicians were a bit sharper in the recording studio take—but in either case there are notes he plays in “Alabama” that are quite possibly the saddest and most resolute notes ever to come out of a horn.
That winter “Coltrane Live at Birdland” is issued as an LP record which includes the recording studio version of “Alabama.” Another release in Coltrane’s furious pace of working and creating. The liner notes on the record were penned by the man who’d sign them then as LeRoi Jones.***
The art of the liner note is a dead art now, but today’s piece quotes a few lines from Jones’ piece of work (the entirety of which you can read here). Those that remember Jones’ notes often recall its opening line, which is also the first line I speak here today. If the job of a liner note writer was akin to writing advertising copy, to attract the consumer, that opening line is highly subversive of that intent:
One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.
Way to ship units LeRoi!
When it comes to writing about “Alabama,” the song on the record where the Coltrane Quartet most directly speaks to that vileness, Jones writes:
I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly.
Jones knows what the tune’s about surely. I don’t know if I’ve fully absorbed that sentence yet, but if you are a person for whom 1963 might as well be 1915 or 1863, and you want to know what it felt like to know of such evil and endure it with an open heart, and to counter it with something that is beautiful (Oh! How can that be?), then you can find it in John Coltrane
Jones says John Coltrane’s art can change us, though neither he nor I will guarantee it. Can it? These are days that cause me to doubt. But if Coltrane doubted, he didn’t’ stop. I honor that belief. Perhaps art works in ways small but deep, and then only for some portion of us humans some of the time. If art like Coltrane’s carries me through sometimes, is that a reason I create art myself?
The player to hear me read a small section of LeRoi Jones’ liner notes to Coltrane live at Birdland is below. Don’t see the player? This highlighted hyperlink will also play it. When I created this performance early this month I did not include any of the sections where Jones talks about the tune “Alabama,” but I was trying to give some flavor of Jones parable about Coltrane’s power and conviction. Musically, my composition and performance is just a trio, there’s no saxophone.
*Yes, I cringe because I recognize myself there in a black&white mirror. Because I operate a musical instrument at times, I claim to be less guilty of the cringe factor. This likely convinces no one.
**Some have sought to document Coltrane’s gigs and recording sessions. There’s no account of “Alabama” being played at any of the live gigs before this TV show. The version on “Coltrane live at Birdland” is not live, but from that short studio session in mid-November.
***Later Amiri Baraka. A man who went through so many stances and positions in his life that it’s unlikely that any sane man can find agreement with all of them.
When we last left-off Kenneth Patchen he was beginning his career as a proletarian poet in the 1930s, writing a strikingly prophetic (in both senses of the word) poem about what the middle of the 20th century was holding in store. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that poem also speaks of our 21st century’s future.
I didn’t have time to discuss that Patchen’s 1952 Wikipedia picture looks like Thurston Howell from Gilligan’s Island.
Patchen never left his concerns with society’s dangers and constraints, it remained part of his poetry throughout his career until his death in 1972, but that’s not all or even much of what he became known for. Here are some of those things:
He was a significant influence on the post-WWII independent, largely non-academic Beat explosion. The bohemian aspects of his life and outlook, as well as the ways his writing expressed itself was a key living American model for the Beats.
And speaking of the Beats, he and his friend and fellow Kenneth, Kenneth Rexroth, were enthusiastic pioneers in the tradition of performing their poetry with musical accompaniment. Though many Beat Generation poems still live on the page, I’m not alone in hearing many of them, even when read in silence, as spoken voices, a jazz group cooling it behind. Patchen was more committed to this combination than most he influenced, touring his “Poetry-Jazz” in the late ‘50s.
Obviously, that style is part of what’s led to the Parlando Project, though I wish to expand on it. Patchen too seemed open to other musical genres with his writing: for example, a longer piece for radio performance with a musique concretescore by John Cage, “The City Wears a Slouch Hat.”
American bohemian arts flowed out from the Beat era, and Beat’s immediate predecessors like Patchen, in a series of connections and mutations. Diverted poet Jim Morrison used his psychedelic ballroom singer money to help Patchen publish one of his final books. And a figure as singular-seeming as Leonard Cohen has links in his expression that seem to connect closely with some of Patchen.*
It wasn’t just music that Patchen combined his poetry with, but visual art—drawing and painting pages that were as much pictures as poems. While this has precedent in medieval illuminated manuscripts, the painter/poet/engraver William Blake, and some of Dada’s work, Patchen’s style of combining his own naïve art with epigrammatic text connects with some of the poster art of the Sixties.
Closer to Pedro Bell than William Blake? Art by Kenneth Patchen.
One of the reasons I so like presenting figures like Patchen or Blake is their “get in the van” indie spirit. Art does not need to ask permission, it perpetrates itself anyway, figuring out a way to use the resources it can scrounge together.
And lastly, another thing Patchen became known for, even if it wasn’t as widely imitated in the Beat era, was his love poetry. It would be restrictive to think of him as just a love poet, but it was a substantial part of his writing and audience. As the billboards changed from “The Beat Generation” to “The Love Generation,” Patchen was already there with his poetry. A case in point, today’s poem “O My Darling Troubles Heaven” performed here by Dave Moore and the LYL Band.
So, enough talking without a band. Go ahead and click on the player below to hear Dave’s performance of Patchen’s poem.
*Like what? The love poetry combined with the prophetic social dread is a recognizable Patchen trope. The combinations of art and writing, such as in Cohen’s Book of Longing can be similar. And while Cohen’s typical poetry plus music style isn’t often reminiscent of Patchen’s, the two obviously didn’t mind mixing those arts.
I live in one of the northernmost states in the U.S., a place where winter cannot be denied, and so we must make our treaty with cold and snow. Some will even claim it makes us better persons—hardier, accepting of the Zen of difficulties. Still, if Minnesota has inherent Buddhist elements, it doesn’t lessen my attachment to a shelf of warm clothes.
When I think of Buddhism I do not think first of ancient and overseas masters, but instead of the Beat Generation writers of my youth, the mostly men who reacted to the growing abstractions and high-mindedness of High Modernism with a return to immediacy and intimacy. The Beats could be seen as beaten-down by something, past the chance of winning a warm success, but they also asked that the word be understood as short for “beatific.” Allen Ginsberg explained: “The point of Beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you actually are able to see the world in a visionary way.*”
Like many things that meet America, Beat got absorbed and its rule-breaking became a style, a fad, a fashion, a look, a required attitude received with only enough meaning to make the accessory match the outfit. Every time I read to music here, I fear I’m seen as wearing a costume, playing a role.
So, what’s this got to do with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—the square’s square—the man who wrote poetry that poets of the last 100 years find worthless?
Let me put Longfellow in a laboratory and see what we find. My lab: it’s a jazz club, probably downstairs, past the gray concrete curb turning winter white. It’s darkened enough inside the room that it’s sometime, night—but what year? The crowd is burbling, so’s the coffee machine. Wait staff are delivering and clearing tables, setting a tray on the bar for a moment to let another pass, talking of nights-off. A couple in the darker corner are nearly making out and can’t hear the band for the sight and breath of each other. A writer at a table closes a notebook, nothing more is in it today. The room is small but fairly full, about half talking their own talk and about half looking at the low bandstand, the quartet.**
The bass and drums begin, the guitar comments and the piano-player chords on the side. The bearded man steps to the mic, sheaf of paper in his hand.
“Snow-Flakes***” he announces. Is this beatific? Is this visionary? Maybe it is, he looks that way. He is a strange cat: saying words “doth” and “bosoms”—like Lord Buckley perhaps. If he was translated into Chinese and then back to English, the Beat element would be clear; but even as it is, the words are beautiful, and he lets them slowly stay there that way, “This is the poem of the air.”
The drummer is still slapping the snare with his brushes, as the bearded man at the microphone gestures onward to the band, with a slight roll of his hand. His face changes. The vision’s past, is there a resolution? “Psalm of Life****” he says.
This other poem is confrontation to everything we’d expect in this club for those who listen here and think about what they heard. “Mournful numbers,” are told on this stage every night, and he’s dissing them right off, and he ceases to pause his words now. The dance of the snowflakes becomes a march of “Let us, then, be up and doing.” What is this? The must be shoveling and stuck car after the beautiful, sorrowful snowfall?
He ambles off as the band riffs for another couple of minutes. What does this strange combination of poems mean? A snow-flake satori in a field, and then a command to earnestly strive. Yes, this Longfellow is a strange cat, even here.
My performance of Longfellow’s “Snow-Flakes” and part of “A Psalm of Life,” is available with the gadget below. Of if you are using a reader that doesn’t show the player gadget, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*In the course of the long influences that led me to doing this project, a local Iowa rock band of the late Sixties, “Emergency Broadcast System,” would open their 1968 sets with the singer speaking a good portion of Ginsberg’s “America” over the band riffing.
**I recorded this on Christmas afternoon, first laying down the drum track and playing my Bass VI, an odd instrument that adds two higher pitched strings to the conventional four-string bass, instead of adding lower strings, the more common variation. I used this higher range to play the repeating, descending riff that occurs throughout the song. I played guitar around this rhythm section and then played the block piano chords. As a last step, I figured if I’m going to impersonate a jazz quartet I might as well go all-in and put in some fake club ambience. Maybe this did come from binging The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel this month with my wife—or from nights at the old Artists Quarter in St. Paul and listening to Sunday at the Village Vanguard by the Bill Evans Trio too many times.
***This one goes out to Mary Grace McGeehan of My Year in 1918, who thought of this poem when she thought of Longfellow. It’s one I’d overlooked until she brought it up, and what a graceful lyric it is!
****I performed only about half of this once well-known poem of Longfellow’s here. Several phrases in it were mottos for my grandparents’ generation, and my parent’s generation passed them on to me in occasional speech under a thin varnish of irony to preserve them. As a result, both the poem’s claim that “Life is real! Life is earnest!” and it’s command to “Let us, then, be up and doing” have remained with me.
Yesterday’s post ran so long that I needed to improve it by removing some things that weren’t relevant to the story of Robert Hayden choosing a school of literary criticism to place not just his work, but his life, in context. But I love the minutiae I find when I’m researching these pieces. So here are some outtakes from yesterday’s post about Hayden’s sonnet praising Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass was not the name he went by as a slave. As with most enslaved persons, to the degree he needed a last name, the name used was from one of the families that had owned his. After his escape from slavery, it was suggested that a name change might help shield him from slave catchers that would kidnap and re-enslave Afro-Americans. He took the name “Douglass” from an immensely popular Scottish historical romance by Walter Scott, “The Lady of the Lake,” where one of the main characters had that family name.
Sir Walter Scott was a huge cultural force in the 19th Century. His stories set in an idealized past of clans and medieval knights kicked off a revival of all kinds of Highlands Scottish culture. Alas, in another case of artists that cannot be held responsible for their fans, one far-flung example of Scott’s influence was his popularity in the American slave-holding south.
There you go, a renowned abolitionist and an infamous symbol of violent racism, both took their names from Sir Walter Scott.
I mentioned Hayden’s disagreements with those associated with the Black Arts Movement and some kinds of Black Nationalist politics in his later life during the 60s and 70s, still too large a subject, and one on which I lack authority. But since I was alive in that time, such things cause me to remember things.
To an under-recognized degree, mainly white radical movements in the mid-20th Century, admired, totemized and sought to copy those contemporary Afro-American movements. When I entered college myself in the 60s, my Irish-American Chicago-born roommate, a college football playing offensive-lineman with his knees already scarred from injuries playing for Lane Tech, kept a photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their black fists raised on the Olympic podium. Within a year or two, that gesture would become a diversely popular gesture of radical protest.
Fred Hampton, the Chicago-based Black Panther killed in a highly questionable police raid was part of our conversations, a newspaper photogravure of his bedroom door scarred with dozens of bullet holes (all inward facing, the caption pointed out) was studied like a record album cover.
For some young serious musicians, Afro-American originated jazz and free-jazz were still examples of the highest forms of contemporary music-making. Some white musicians and artists sought to emulate the independence and syndicalist self-organization that Black Arts associated musicians had developed.
How did Afro-Futurist Jazz appear with hard-rockin’ punks the MC5?
Poster by Gary Grimshaw for a concert promoted by John Sinclair
For a moment, for a young white man in any area outside of a few urban enclaves to grow long hair was to a degree both real, and “that’s crazy, it’s not the same!” to become a voluntary Black person. Younger readers, let that sit in for a moment. Isn’t that a ludicrous thought?
I was there. Yes, surely there was much ignorance there, staggering naiveté. The term cultural appropriation hadn’t been invented yet, but surely this would be a cause to invent it. Yes, that comparison, that metaphor, was partly false, partly true.
Fifty years ago, in the Detroit area—where Robert Hayden was born and would spend much of his life—a white poet, arts-cooperative guru, and jazz-critic John Sinclair lead a small group to declare themselves the “White Panther Party,” issuing a manifesto that echoed the Black Panther party. Other than provocation, their chief asset was they had a rock band, which was better than the mimeograph most other movements could boast.
And so it was, that when I read of Robert Hayden, the poor Black kid, who struggled to attend Wayne State University during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a Black man who couldn’t volunteer, who’d have his own battles between the universal and the particular—when I read the name of that school where he went to learn poetry, a short, near-blind, unathletic kid, I thought of this performance by that rock band, the MC5, at Wayne State’s athletic field in 1970.
“Kick Out the Jams” is about irresistible musicians, but note, the crowd is 80% male.
I beg your indulgence, but once more I feature Carl Sandburg’s words in today’s piece. Variety is a goal here, so perhaps I need to take a personal no-Sandburg pledge for a decent interval. And, honestly, I wasn’t seeking another Sandburg piece when I read through a yearly anthology of American poetry from 1922 last week, looking for fresh public domain material. Reading it I came upon the interesting poem that is the basis for today’s piece.
The younger Carl Sandburg. Prophet?
Besides variety, I like to see connections, and “California City Landscape” is rich in that. As a poem it may not be as sharp and condensed as Sandburg’s Imagist poems that I like to call attention to, but it does bring to the table Sandburg’s youthful journalism. “California City Landscape” starts off like a feature story, and the story it tells is like ones written about gentrification in the 21st Century, even though it was written no later than 1922. The incumbent residents may be displaced. But like a poem, or a piece of carefully written prose, the reportage includes sentences which send a reader or listener off into entire dimensions of reality outside its moment in “the peace of the morning sun as it happened.” It was those things that arrested my attention as I read this in the midst of this old annual anthology.
It starts out with this anecdote about a second generation Irish-American goat farmer, connecting as it does to one of second-generation immigrant Sandburg’s great themes: American immigration. But how carefully barbed is the sentence Sandburg uses to sum up the changes this man has seen in California by 1922. He arrived in a covered wagon, and “shot grouse, buffalo, Indians, in a single year.”
If we were Tweeting: “OMG! He went there!”
But there it is in a sentence. An Irish-American, coming from a nation that is widely despised, colonially oppressed, and mired in poverty and starvation, travels in a generation across and ocean and a broad continent, and in the process shoots (and presumably kills) indigenous Americans, an act linked as if it was like hunting for food.
I’ll admit, at first moment I thought it offensive, but I’ve read enough Sandburg to know his toughmindedness, his instinct to not sugar-coat. That Sandburg wouldn’t have included this detail as a thoughtless, bloodless, “Oh, those good ol’ days, when men knew how to handle a rifle” comment.
His next anecdote: two Japanese families, truck gardening for the growing city of Los Angeles. And once again, the undertone: immigrants whose race and culture is understood barely enough to be widely disapproved of in their new country. We don’t need to credit Sandburg with the gift of prophecy, but historically we may know what will happen in 20 years: the Japanese Americans on the West Coast will be taken from their homes by legal fiat and detained in makeshift rural camps.
So, a 95-year-old poem about a problem we might write about today (if our poetry would be politically engaged and socially observant): gentrification. And in talking about it, Sandburg brings in racism, and immigration from those, ah, um—what’s the Presidential term—oh, yes, less desirable countries.
And then the third anecdote: the McMansion of the Hollywood director, with the “whore-house interiors.” Here I’m not completely sure about Sandburg’s prophetic dimension. The epithet of whore-house décor remained even into my time in the second half of the 20th Century as a charge on nouveau riche ostentation, a term used without a direct linkage to sexual oppression.
That Sandburg the poet goes on to add “ransacked clothes,” an odd adjective choice that he could have intended as a knock against Hollywood costumers knocking off “real” European couture—but that sounds more snobbish than Sandburg could ever be—and he next adds the “In the combats of ‘male against female” line. From the era we know the director is male, and Sandburg associates this anecdote specifically with a struggle of “male against female.”
Maybe I’m missing an obvious alternative, but is Sandburg predicting a 95 year #timesup statement?
Finally, I love the last line, echoing a common Sandburg trope about modernity and timelessness: “How long it might last, how young it might be.”
And now for something completely different: Sandburg in his 80s. “Ernest Hemmingway?”
Musically, I’ve been a little short of time. I wanted to do something reminiscent of the mid-20th Century word-jazz bag, but the typical beat poet reading to jazz backing in a small club used piano, and my piano skills are entirely rudimentary. Frequent Parlando Project keyboardist Dave Moore is currently fighting a right hand issue, so I couldn’t go that route, so I used by love of jazz guitarist Jim Hall and my audacious tendency to fake styles beyond my abilities to create this jazz trio with drums, bass, and electric guitar for my reading of Sandburg’s “California City Landscape.” Hear it using the player below.